My 5 favorite heroes: Volume 3

It occurs to me that exactly two of the heroes on mylist are actually “heroic.” The rest of them are just characters I find fascinating. But this is one who is, in fact, heroic.

He’s pretty much the epitome of heroism, especially in America. Not just here, everyone around the world knows his name and knows what he stands for. And where is he on my list? Number 3 … so that shows you the extent to which my interests are distorted.

In fact, many would be shocked that he’s on the list at all, given my taste for dark characters. But here he is.

No. 3. Superman from … well, Superman. And many other films, shows, and of course comic books. The character is traditionally thought of (not inaccurately) as the boy scout who’s too much of a wimp to really get the job done without some help from Deus Ex Machina. But this is what makes him interesting, and that’s why I put him on the list.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t think they’ve ever made “the” Superman movie. Nor do I think there’s been a definitive actor who has played him in the same way that we have the ultimate Batman with Christian Bale or Wolverine with Hugh Jackman. I think the actors who have portrayed Superman have all been good, but I’m not sure they completely get the character.

Because in many ways, Superman is the most human of all of us. His heroism doesn’t stem from his extraordinary powers, it stems from his farmboy upbringing. Think about it: almost no human being would use Superman’s abilities for purely benevolent purposes. Even the best of us would eventually start to descend, a little bit at a time, until we abused those powers.

For instance, in Superman Returns Lois is raising a child with another man. And Superman suffers in silence. Sure, he tries to win her back in a quasi-romantic fashion, but he mostly just kind of hangs back out of respect for Lois and her son.

When I saw the film, the incredibly annoying guy in back of me said, “come on Supes! Just fry that dude and get your girl back!” I was, of course, infuriated at the time.

But you know what? That’s exactly what I’d do if I was Superman.

If I came back from a long journey to find that the love of my life had shacked up with some other dude, I’d want to kill the guy! So would most people, women and men alike. Most murders on TV and in real life are influenced by relationships gone wrong.

So if you’re an all-powerful being who can’t be locked in a prison (stop thinking about kryptonite, I’ll address that in the next paragraph) and can’t be killed very easily, why wouldn’t you fry the guy? It’s no wonder Lex Luthor wants to destroy the guy, he’s dangerous! He is a legitimate threat to Earth.

BUT we need him too much.

And here’s where the idea becomes truly interesting of how much power Superman really has. The existence of Superman is like a drug for the masses. Once he’s there, you can’t go on without him.

In the abysmally horrifying Superman IV, Superman hurls all of the world’s nuclear weapons into the sun. Which is a bit preachy within the context of the film, because if it was that easy in real life then it would’ve been done already. But within the world of Superman, it is that easy. And so if you have a person who can save you from almost any danger, wouldn’t you go to any lengths to see that he still wants you around? To see that he’s happy and has his way?

So even though you could feasibly shoot him with a kryptonite bullet or keep him in a room lit by a red sun, why would you? Tomorrow there could be an asteroid hurtling towards Earth or a volcano erupting onto a small village or a giant ant attack (remember, we’re in the world of comics).

And you know who’s not going to help you anymore? Our man, the last son of Krypton. Because you locked him up for frying some tool that stole his girlfriend. Because he’s so vitally important to the safety of Earth, Superman is quite literally a god among men. And this means that if he wanted to, he could get away with whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it.

If Batman or Spider-Man start getting a little out of control, they can be cast out. Sure, they help the crime problem. But only on a small scale. And with big things they’re really no use at all.

Train hurtling off a cliff and toward its doom? Forget it.

Nuclear weapon launched by a mad scientist straight into the heart of San Diego? Yeah try tossing a batarang at that, see how it works out.

No one worships the ground Batman walks on more than I do, but he is only human and he has limits. Superman is the savior of Earth, and Earth could never do without him after he started donning the cape.

But he doesn’t do any of that. If the government locked him up, tortured him, and killed his dog Krypto, he’d still go out and save the planet a minute later. Even if in his heart of hearts he thinks humanity is worthless overall, he’ll keep doing what he’s doing because he knows there are good people out there like his parents and Jimmy Olsen.

He knows he could never forgive himself for letting a tragedy occur, no matter the personal cost to himself.

And he knows precisely how drunk on power he could become and that’s why he stays restrained. He’ll never take a life, he’ll never hesitate to do anything he can to save a life. THAT is what makes him Earth’s greatest hero, not what he can do but what he stops himself from doing.

If his powers disappeared because of sunspots or solar flares or whatever sci-fi nonsense they came up with, and he had the opportunity to save someone from muggers (this time at actual physical risk to himself) I can guarantee he would. Because he’s all heart.

But let’s put a dark twist on this.

Superman was initially created as a representation of an immigrant who comes to America looking to do his best and fit in with the new society. He’s come to represent more than that since his first appearance in 1938, but that’s essentially still the core of his character.

No matter how long he wears the glasses and pretends to be one of us, he’s not. He might believe he’s one of us sometimes, but he’s really a strange visitor from another planet. He wants to be accepted as a human being because there are no more of his own people, and if we don’t accept him then he’ll be all alone.

Even if he doesn’t consciously think about it, in his mind I think he believes that if he didn’t go out and put his best foot forward at all times then no one would care about him. There are probably plenty of days where he doesn’t feel like going and saving a falling plane. And stopping bank robberies gets really old after a while, I’m sure.

But I’m going to slightly contradict what I said before and add that in a moment of crisis humanity will always turn to him, when they need him most, but in the in-between time they would most certainly turn their backs on him if he even screwed up once.

That’s part of the tragedy: he might not be incorrect in his assumption that if he didn’t put his best foot forward at all times he’d be cast out. Because public opinion is fickle, especially when literally everyone knows you. And so once he decided he was going to be a nice guy all the time, he’s stuck for life.

Everybody loves villains who turned good again, and they can get away with any amount of being nice because anything is better than the way they were before. But if you start out nice then that’s all you can ever be. So it’s a heavy burden that Superman must bear, because he has to live with the knowledge that he could take full advantage of his powers at any time, but then he’d lose the one thing that’s important to him: acceptance.

And herein lies his true weakness.

No it’s not really kryptonite, which was invented on the radio show so the regular voice actor could have a week off by the way (they brought in some other guy to cough and moan because Superman was “injured” and didn’t sound like himself). People aren’t brought down by physical weaknesses, they’re brought down by emotional ones.

Superman is smart enough to avoid being in any serious danger with the few physical weaknesses he has but his emotions often compromise him. Dealing with high-danger situations often involves a lot of gray area, and Superman does not exist in gray area whatsoever. That’s not too good.

Because in real life, magical solutions never present themselves where everybody wins in the unwinnable situation. I won’t completely dork out on you and provide actual examples, but Superman’s inability to be a pragmatist along the lines of my last hero, Captain Kirk, has gotten him into trouble on several occasions. He is so driven by his heart, that his mind often gets no say in the matter whatsoever.

When he does the whole “reverse the planet and make everything right again” thing in the first movie, that makes me mad. Because A) it’s a bit ridiculous even for that genre and B) it completely removes him from having to make tough decisions.

I’m not saying I want Lois to die, but Superman is ripped apart by the fact that he can’t save everyone. As was written in one of my favorite comics about him: “sometimes faster than a speeding bullet isn’t fast enough.”

I love that, because Superman has to live with the knowledge that he can save more people than anyone else alive, but that’s still not enough.

Imagine being the greatest hero the world has ever known and yet still punishing yourself internally because you failed to save one person. This is why Superman’s greatest weakness is his own heart, because that’s no way to live. Although I suppose that’s what makes him who he is. If he wasn’t always striving for the impossible, then he would get tired of saving people all the time. But somehow, he always gets up and does it time and again.

So there you go, Superman turned out to be a bit tragic after all didn’t he? Those who are expected to do great things always have to suffer I suppose, especially in fiction. But no one does it in a more positive way and with more optimism than our buddy Kal-El.

So even though he’s a boy scout, I think we could all do to be a bit more like him. He’s not as interesting or as complex as my top 2 heroes, but it’s tough to beat him in terms of actually being heroic.

Speaking as a man who tries to follow the rules and be a nice guy, it comforts me to think that though nice guys get a lot of crap in return, it’s worth it for the positive impact it can have on the lives of others. And I’m not sure I’d feel that way at all if I hadn’t grown up watching Superman go out and help people, even if he’d rather be doing anything else.

(Read Volume 2 hero)